The basement of 75 Christopher Street was a jazz impresario’s dream. The underutilized 10,000 square feet of the sleepy Fat Cat billiards had enough space to build an entire jazz club within it. For Mitch Borden, whose tiny Smalls club had people lining up down the street to get in, a spillover club seemed like just the thing. He struck a deal with Fat Cat’s owners, got some acoustic panels and a bank of box fans, and took the "square" out of the square-feet by populating the space with some of the best tchochkes ever salvaged from a dumpster. The resulting club played host to some of the scene’s greatest acts and some of our best recordings.
After years of observing the goings-on at Smalls, the entrepreneurial chess master Noah Sapir bought into Fat Cat. He had a vision for it that began where Mitch’s left off, and added many innovative touches of his own. This now-thriving spot might just be the best hangout we’ve ever had—part by design and part by serendipity. When fire code demanded the wall enclosing Mitch’s music room be torn down, Sapir elected to open up the music to the entire club. At first, it seemed crazy. Perform jazz for a boisterous crowd of pool and ping-pong players? But the seasoned cats never batted an eye. “Cool,” they said. And damned if it wasn’t cool. The energy from the band fed into the crowd, and the crowd fed it back to the band, and the result was an elusive alchemy. Wiser cats saw the advantage in it—where else could you play jazz for as many as a thousand people that might visit Fat Cat in a night? At Town Hall, maybe, or Lincoln Center. But where except Fat Cat could you stand to recruit so many people at one time into the cause of the music in vivo?
Through all of this evolution, there have been few constants. One is the adventuresome guitarist Jade Synstelien, who arrived in New York as a pilgrim to Smalls around the time that Fat Cat the jazz club was born. He was a young man out of America’s heartland, a child at heart, but with the world already etched onto his face, he had a dream—and a mission. Now, the dream of running a big band is as close to the impossible dream as anything in New York. It’s one of those paradoxical you-have-to-make-it-before-you-can-make-it endeavors. But this guy had the work ethic and would not give up. His band began life as the Staring Into The Sun Orchestra, the name perhaps an unwitting reference to his characteristic posture and to the dangers of daydreaming. “Staring into the sun is fun—but not good for you,” or so goes the song. Mitch featured the band every Sunday, and when Noah bought the place, Jade stayed on and began to play an integral part of the new club. Rising star Nellie McKay sang for the band during a period, and eventually used Jade on her breakout album for Columbia, Get Away From Me. After seven steady years, the band has evolved into the Fat Cat Big Band, both in name, and as an institution in itself.
If this were only a story of one person’s perseverance, that would be one thing. But this is a story of Jade’s remarkable creative drive, his boundless love for music and humanity, and his ability to inspire the same in others. The book and feel of the band is entirely his. The band is packed with 11 top players, vital musicians each in their own right; but they all get it. Each of Jade’s charts has some kind of off-kilter twist to it. Even the stuff that pays tribute to the tradition is knowing and gutsy. Not a trace of trite swing revivalism anywhere, nothing lite. Nor is he experimenting with mere eclecticism, a common crutch of modern music. He’s trying to say something, and each piece adds something to the message. Unusual chromatic voices are offset against more traditional voicings. The guy can clearly write and play clean, but he knows how and when to toss it up. All that individuality is rooted in the right places, and I think he in fact understands one part of the Ellington-Strayhorn/Mingus connection that has eluded most everyone else. It’s all tied up in having something to say, and saying it. Speaking of which, I think Jade has some of the most interesting vocal tunes going, reminding one a bit of later Tom Waits, but not in the least derived from it.
This summer, Jade took the band into Clinton Recording Studios and laid down 31 of his original tunes, ceremoniously kicked off by an impromptu, incantatory blessing from drummer Billy Kaye, serving as both master and mascot. So here are the first two discs of the Clinton sessions being released together on Smalls Records, which jumped at the chance to put them out. Clearly the fruit was picked when it was ripe and cooked to golden perfection. Dig in.
Luke Kaven, November 2008